by Benjamín Harguindey
On the Milky Road (2016) is based “on three true stories and many fantasies”, tells us the opening text. Emir Kusturica’s new movie – his first feature length since 2007’s Zavet – is a story about love and self-sacrifice told with the sensibility of magical realism, a tall tale about lovers caught in the middle of senseless war.
As the movie opens a falcon soars across the colorful Balkan landscape and we see two armies locked in a cartoonish stalemate where shots are exchanged and bombs provide a steady soundtrack, yet nobody seems to get injured, let alone killed. The whole panorama is vaguely reminiscent of an Astérix comic book, where Gauls routinely foil the invading Romans in their bloodless, futile siege. Except we’re given even less context in Kusturica’s movie – there are opposing armies (oppressors and rebels?) and that is that.
We see Kosta (Kusturica), an officer armed with an umbrella and mounting a donkey – basically a Serbian El Topo (1970) -, who is less concerned with the battle than he is with keeping the troops supplied with milk. He rides across the battleground back and forth in a Sisyphean enterprise (the milk bottles are routinely shot), barely lucking out on sure death along the way.
We meet his would-be romantic interest, the spry Milena (Sloboda Micalovic), who operates a clock tower and in one of the many moments of cartoon misfortune gets yo-yo’d by the clock’s pulleys. The whole movie operates on this zany wavelength: a rapid-fire succession of outlandish mishaps and parentheses of magical realism, usually presented as non sequiturs.
Then there is Nevesta, a milk-maid – played by the gorgeous Monica Bellucci – who is the victim of a kidnapping and is thrown into Kosta’s world. Bellucci is calm, mild-mannered and quietly accepting of the insanity that surrounds her, a vulnerable presence contrasting with her usual sultryfemme fatale roles.
This is a crazy land, forever caught in themiddle of a crazy war. We’re never given a reason for it. It is just senseless madness. At night both armies appear to come together in truce in order to party and celebrate wild Bacchanalias, as orchestrated (literally) by Kosta, who sits at his synth, pet falcon on his shoulder, and delivers the kind of devilish underground music Kusturica is known for. It’s as if the director wished to point out the senselesness of war and for that he concocted this absurd tale fraught in nonsense.
Needless to say, Kosta falls madly in love with Nevesta and for a while there is a love triangle of sorts involving them and Milena. Then halway through the film the magic wavers – bloody carnage ensues, suddenly and unexpectedly – and Kosta and Nevesta becomes lovers on the run, aided on-and-off by what could be described as magical whimsy (our star-crossed lovers may or may not float to safety depending on the scene) and an incredibly benign Mother Nature (the whole of the animal kingdom are allies to Kosta, who treats them and speaks to them as equals).
At times On the Milky Road seems at odds with itself. The finale banks on a kind of emotional investment you wouldn’t get fromt the rest of the movie, which is so madcap and random. Then again maybe that’s Kusturica’s point – that the magic can be over any second, that there is no rhyme or reason to the good and bad we experience in the world, unless we become passionate about something.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).